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Thursday, December 31, 2009


Track 9: Tub-Tub-Ma-Ma-Ga-Ga

album: American History + Rock-n-Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees

words & music by Lloyd Miller, arrangement by Chris Johnson, Ely Levin, Lloyd Miller, and Anand Mukherjee

lead vocals: Ulysses S. Dee (Lloyd Miller)

guest kid vocalists: Charlie Kil7gore, Hannah Finamore-Rossler, Elodie Keating, Isabel Thornton



If you get tired, do the Tub-Tub-Tubman
If you get mad, do the Martin Luther King
If you're feeling greedy, give it away like Gandhi
Hum, hum, if you're too tired to sing


If you get tired, do the Tub-Tub-Tubman

She never let anybody whine on the way

"I'm sleepy!"
"I'm hungry!"

"I want to go back to the plantation!"
"Stop whining, keep walking. We got ten more miles today."


If you get mad Do the Ma-Ma-Martin

Let me tell you, it's not easy

People can be so mean

But take somebody's hand, a woman or a man

I don't care if you can't stand 'em

Tell 'em "I'm stickin' with love, hate's too much for me."


If you get greedy then give it away like Gandhi

cos all you need are some sandles, some glasses and a mat

At least that's what some fella from Massachusetts told me

when he was tryin' to explain why he only traveled with one pair of slacks


As I've mentioned before, most Dees songs that actually make it on an album have been "battle-tested." We would say "kid-tested," but read on. This is a song that we've played for years for all different types of audiences -- babies, preschoolers, elementary schoolers, even surly junior highers. There have been a number of times that Chris (Booker Dee) and I have shown up at an NYC school to perform for (no joke) as many as 600 kids. If the kids are little (3rd grade and younger) they usually don't care what we do -- they just love hearing music and getting a chance to move around. If they're older, though, they expect to be entertained... and when two dudes show up in sport coats toating a banjo and an upright bass and calling themselves "The Deedle Deedle Dees" (usually mispronounced by the adminstrator whose introduces us first by threatening the kids that they better behave or we'll never ever come back) the odds are decidedly not in our favor.

That's where this and other workhorse tunes of ours come in. For starters, this song probably has the most famous names of any Dees composition (we prefer the lesser known heroes and villains of history, as our loyal fans know) so a good number of kids, whether they know a lot, a little, or nothing about the three namechecked people, at least feel some sort of familiarity with the subject matter. During the course of this song, they won't learn much more about these people than they already knew, but they (amazingly nearly all of them) "do the Tub-Tub-man" (walk in place), "the Ma-Ma-Martin" (take hands with someone next to them or, if this is socially unacceptable, pretend they're holding hands or, in extreme cases, just stand near someone), and "the Ga-Ga-Gandhi" (slap hands with someone). In my very brief pre-song intro I explain that they're walking because Ms. Tubman did a lot of walking, holding hands because MLK held other people's hands to show the police and others that he was strong and couldn't be ignored, and giving fives because Gandhi liked to give people things. Simplistic, yes, but efficient. If one of them, just one, looks up one of these people later, it's worth it.

A note on the first verse: according to eyewitness accounts, Harriet Tubman actually said "You'll be free or die" when runaway slaves protested that they wanted to turn back. She said this while brandishing a pistol. In a classroom situation I'll explain this to the kids, in an auditorium, it works much better to simply sing what's above: "Stop whining, keep walking..."

A note on the second verse: When kids groan in response to my request that they hold hands, I tell them to imagine themselves and everyone else in the school in Times Square (pre-Bloomberg's no-traffic Times Square). If all of you, every kid in this school, held hands and blocked the street, I ask them, could cars pass without hitting you? This explanation doesn't get the no-hand-holders to change their minds most of the time, but, if I'm a good reader of faces, most of the kids seem to get that the idea that holding hands doesn't only signify young love. It's a start.

A note on the third verse: A good friend of mine is a big fan of Rick Steves, the public television host who advocates traveling extremely light to the point that one has to wash and hang one's underwear every night. Re-read the lines in light of this fact.

A note on the kids who sing:

Isabel is my guitar student. I first worked with her over four years ago when she was in a second-grade production of Twelfth Night that my wife put on with her class. We wrote a bunch of original songs. Isabel, pardon the expression, played the fool.

Elodie used to be my guitar student. Both she and Hannah are, like Isabel, veterans of my wife's class and performers I admire.

Char7lie (he likes to spell his name like that, the "7" is silent) is an awesome drummer. He also, yes you guessed it, was in my wife's class. He wrote a rap about fish and chips that I still repeat in my head when things get bad.

A note on the first guitar solo: Yes, that is a guitar but that's not the only instrument you're hearing. There's also a pencilina there. The two instruments trade back and forth. See if you can figure out which is which.

What's a pencilina? Our producer, Bradford Reed, invented it. He used to play it when he was in the band King Missile and in the Blue Man Group (he was an original member of the cast, "before it went all corporate" as I've heard some folks remark). He now plays it on his solo albums and his scores for shows on the Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, and elsewhere. Check him and his "amazing pencilina" out here:


Monday, December 21, 2009

Party Girl

Track 8
Party Girl
album: American History + Rock-n-Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees
words & music by Lloyd Miller, arrangement by Chris Johnson, Ely Levin, Lloyd Miller, and Anand Mukherjee horn arrangement by Roy Nathanson
lead vocals: Ali Hammer
kid back-up vocalists: Hannah Finamore-Rossler, Elodie Keating, Isabel Thornton
alto sax: Roy Nathanson
trumpet: Gabe Nathanson

Just when I thought my life would end
I talked to my friend...

Here's what she said to me:

You don't have to be a party girl
You don't have to spend all your time
shaking hands for FDR
Ellie, that ain't who you are

You don't have to be a party girl
You don't have to spend all your life
standing by the door
Eleanor, I know you can do more

Down in the coal mines
In the camps
Out with the working people

Be his eyes and ears
His legs and feet

My great depression began
The day Franklin Roosevelt won the election
He's the one with the big grin
I'm just the one beside him

Hick said "No...

A couple of years ago, a fan online asked for a song about Eleanor Roosevelt. For a long time I was really stumped by this request. Part of my writer's block had to do with Eleanor's notoriety -- she's so well known, she did so much, she's so well regarded. What more could I add? Even more important for me was the lack (as far as I knew at the time) of any complication or personality flaw or exciting incident that would provide the narrative hook on which to hang my song.

I finally found my hook for ER last year when reading Jonathan Alter's short book on FDR's first 100 days (a Deedle Deedle Dees book club selection, read about the meeting and the FDR-themed singalong I led here: In Alter's book, I read for the first time of Eleanor's friendship with Lorena Hickok, a hard-drinking, cigar-smoking journalist. Lorena sounds like a film noir stock character doesn't she? In the movies, of course, such characters were always male -- but that's only one of many ways that Lorena defied the stereotypes of the age. She was one of the most respected writers of the day and very much an insider among insiders in the small, exclusive world of 1930s and 40s Washington politics and media.

Only recently have researchers started to uncover more details of Eleanor and Lorena's friendship. Most signficantly, a biographer found a box of letters between the two a few years ago -- and after reading some of the contents, decided not to ignore what she found. The letters have since been published, and, at least to a 2010 reader, they sound very much like the writings of two people who were more than just friends. It's dangerous to read the language of another era with present-day ears of course, but read excerpts of the letters at the links below yourself and see what you think.

Ultimately, though, what's most significant in my opinion about the relationship is the influence that Lorena had on Eleanor. After FDR was first elected (the first of four times) Eleanor, contrary to the standard image of the smiling, supportive First Lady, was despondent and convinced that her life would now be horrible. In correspondence with Lorena, Eleanor sounds genuinely and severely depressed about her future as a party hostess and presidential spouse. Some researchers have speculated that she may have even been suicidal at this point. Lorena, as she did many times during their many years of communication with each other, doesn't soothe Eleanor with talk of how the job of First Lady won't be that bad. Instead, she tells her, in the blunt manner she was known for, that she should change the job to suit herself. She didn't say the exact words, "You don't have to be a party girl" (that's my pop music re-phrasing) but she did tell Eleanor to remake and expand the role of the president's wife. Pretty cool.

A note on the performers: We're privileged to have jazz legend Roy Nathanson and his son Gabe (now 12 years old, 11 when he recorded it) doing the horns on this song. Roy wrote the Afrobeat-inspired horn part and he and Gabe performed it together in the studio. If you've never Roy's music, you must. He's done a lot of different things, so make sure to sample some of all of it --- his work with the pioneering Jazz Passengers, his super-fun experiments with the Lounge Lizards and John Lurie, and his collaborations with Elvis Costello, Deborah Harry, and others.

Here are a few specific recommendations:

Otto von Dee says start with the album, Plain Old Joe.

Roy's newest album, Subway Moon, which has a companion book of poetry:

Roy's jazz opera featuring Elvis Costello:

Find Roy's shows and other stuff at this MySpace. By the way, the Hot Johnsons, the bluegrass/jazz/klezmer/soul string band that Chris (Booker Dee) and I play in when not onstage with the Dees, will be opening up for Roy in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, this January.

We're also very excited to have Ali Hammer, formerly of Rasa Radiata, an NYC band that also featured Dees drummer Ely Levin (AKA Otto von Dee), on vocals. She also sings lead on "Do the Turnout" and back-up on "Xu Lapi Knewel, New Jersey."

LINKS to learn more about Eleanor and Lorena (parental guidance suggested):

a play about Eleanor and Lorea

read some of their letters here:

a published version of their letters:

Alter's book:


Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Brooklyn Bridge Song

I went looking for Roebling's house
on a windy afternoon

And though my daughter couldn't speak
she told me what she knew

She cried until we reached Number 110,
a house of air

I was looking for
a place
that wasn't there

And while the great bridge
was spun across the sky

A man with ruined legs
watched the work through a spyglass

Each morning, he sent orders to the men
by his love's hand

Do their ghosts still live where
cars drive into the night?

We went walking on that same bridge
She slept the whole way across

While I told her of its history and
the lives that were lost

A few blocks from City Hall
I bought us pizza, the first we'd shared

"More!" she said
and stood up on the chair

And while the great bridge
was spun across the sky

A man with ruined legs
watched the work through a spyglass

Each morning, he sent orders to the men
by his love's hand

Do their ghosts still live where
cars drive into the night?

A rooster was on Emily's lap
when she took the first ride across

And a president
shook Wash Ro's hand
on the day the bridge opened up

But while my girl and I
stood on the Brooklyn side

I had very different thoughts

I looked toward the Fulton Ferry dock
and saw the old man's foot get crushed

I watched the water lap at the tower stones
and saw the men set to work as the caisson shut

I felt my own legs stiffen
as if the bends had stricken them

Do ghosts still live?

12 books for 12 songs for 12 months

The Dees are putting together the reading list for our 2010 bookclub. We're going to do a different book for each song on our new album, American History + Rock-n-Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees. That's 12 books for 12 songs for 12 months.

We need your suggestions. Books for grown-ups and books for kids. We're actually doing two lists of 12 books, a parent list and a kid list. Below are the subjects of the songs. Have you or your child read any great books on these topics?

Amelia Earhart

John Muir

The Lowell Mill Strike

Bennie Benson and the Alaskan Flag

César Chávez and his fasts

Satchel Paige

The Mexican Muralists Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, José David Alfaro Siqueiros

Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok

The Brooklyn Bridge

Susan B. Anthony

New Jersey

We're making arrangements with a local Brooklyn bookstore or two to create a special Deedle Deedle Dees display featuring our book club books. Any book clubs near you that you think might like to participate?


Saturday, December 19, 2009

Put on the Dress

Track 11: Put on the Dress

album: American History + Rock-n-Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees
words & music by Lloyd Miller, arrangement by Chris Johnson, Ely Levin, Lloyd Miller, and Anand Mukherjee
lead vocals: Otto von Dee (Ely Levin)
guest vocalist: Bill Childs


Put on the dress
Put on the wig
Put on the little round classes, I said

Stand up in class
You know what to say
Read your report
then shout "ERA!"

Nobody told me to be Susan B. Anthony
Nobody told me to be Susan B. Anthony

They said write a report, make it biography
They never said I'd have to dress up and be
The person I researched for the whole world to see
But even if I'd known...

I'd still be Susan B. Anthony!

This song was inspired by a story that Bill Childs, host of the award-winning family radio show, Spare the Rock, Spoil the Child, told me. When he was in school, he was assigned to do a report on an important historical person. Bill, without any prompting from his family, chose Susan B. Anthony. Pretty awesome. Only after he had made this choice did he learn that the assignment required dressing up as one's subject and delivering the report in front of the whole class. Bill was the only kid in the class who chose a historical figure from the opposite gender -- a variable the teacher apparently hadn't considered when she created the assignment.

Bill didn't, however, change his report topic nor did he try to get out of the dress-up clause in his teacher's instructions. True to form, he "put on the dress" and did the presentation. And now, you can hear the adult Bill Childs speaking the lyrics during the second verse of the song.

More important than this fun story, though, is the story of Susan B. Anthony herself. Ever since elementary school, I've known that she was an advocate for the right of women to vote. But until recently, this is where my knowledge of this extremely important activist stopped. Instead of just listing some of the cool stuff I found out, I thought it might be more fun to make a little quiz. If you answer all three questions correctly, you'll get a free copy of American History + Rock-n-Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees.

Susan B. Anthony Quiz
1. For what crime was Susan B. Anthony arrested?

2. When Susan B. Anthony was a child, what did one of her teachers refuse to teach her because she was a female?

3. Why did Susan B. Anthony split with fellow activist Frederick Douglass?

You can find the answers to these questions pretty easily online. But if you'd like to read more extensively about her and other activists, try one of these books.

for grown-ups:

Voices of Protest! Documents of Courage and Dissent by Frank Lowenstein, Sheryl Lechner, and Erik Bruun -- I just got this book as a present. Looks terrific.

Not For Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony by Geoffrey C. Ward and Ken Burns -- Ken Burns' documentaries are all right, but I prefer the companion books.

Failure is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words by Lynn Sherr --
Definitely read some of her speeches and essays: he knew how to hit people where it hurt.

for kids:

Susan B. Anthony: A Photo-Illustrated Biography by Lucile Davis -- lots of interesting pictures from her era

Susan B. Anthony: Fighter for Women's Rights by Deborah Hopkinson and Amy June Bates -- an early-reader chapter book, good for elementary students

- Lloyd (Ulysses S. Dee)

Monday, December 14, 2009

The new album is here! (Right here next to me)

We had a great time at our CD release concert and video shoot this past Saturday, December 12th, and we can't wait for you to hear the album! Squid, an NYC-based video director and visual artist who was an original member of the Blue Man Group's production team, shot the whole concert -- primarily to use as a stand-alone video for the song, "Little Red Airplane," but also to carve up into clips that we'll put online soon.

The album, as many of you know, is called American History + Rock-n-Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees. The clunky, obvious title is our attempt to make it very clear what it is we do. Traveling the country the past years, the two questions we're most frequently asked are:

"So are you guys like the Wiggles?"

"Are you on Noggin?"

We (cue violins) have grown tired of these questions and so have decided to reduce our band to the simple equation that now adorns the new record. I'm sure it won't help. But who cares? We just want people to hear these wonderful new songs that we've been working on for so long.

Here's the track list:

1. Little Red Airplane

2. John Muir

3. Do the Turnout

4. Growl Growl

5. ¡Sí Se Puede!

6. Bring 'Em In

7. Tres Muralistas

8. Party Girl

9. Tub-Tub-Ma-Ma-Ga-Ga

10. The Brooklyn Bridge Song

11. Put on the Dress

12. Xu Lapi Knewel, New Jersey

I've already posted about Track 12. Tonight I'll post about Track 11. Tomorrow... you get the idea. I'm posting full lyrics plus background info on each song. And sometime in January and February (in time for our winter tour) the brand-new Teacher's Guide to the Deedle Deedle Dees will be complete and ready to mail to you (let us know if you want one).

By the way, if you need copies of either of our albums right away, please write me at CDBaby sold out of Freedom in a Box last week and although we've sent them some more, these CDs -- as well as copies of the new album -- might not be online for sale until next week. Just tell me how many you need and when you need them by. If you live in Brooklyn, I might even be able to drop them by your house.


Saturday, November 21, 2009

Xu Lapi Knewel, New Jersey

Attention Dees fans:

This is the first of 12 posts about the songs on our new album, American History + Rock-n-Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees. Each of these posts will include lyrics + some background info and links. We finally sent the album artwork to the printer yesterday so, yes, we'll have the CDs in time for our release party on Dec. 12th at the Moxie Spot.

We're also finishing our teacher's guide. This will include all the info that you find on this blog + lesson plans, in-class activities, and more. If you'd like one, write us and we'll put one in the mail. We're planning to finish it by the first week of February.

We'll begin, just to be Deedle Deedle Dee-ish about things, with Track 12 and work our way back to Track 1.

Track 12: Xu lapi knewel, New Jersey
album: American History + Rock-n-Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees
words & music by Lloyd Miller
arrangement by Chris Johnson, Ely Levin, Lloyd Miller, and Anand Mukherjee

Cranetown is gone now
Montclair is where she used to be
Communipaw is long gone
Now she's just a part of Jersey City

Where's the wild garden state I roamed?
Au revoir... Farewell... Ma as-salaamah...
I've been looking for my home
Xu lapi knewel (xhoo lah-pee knay-wuhl)
I'll see you again, New Jersey

Hopoghan Hackingh
the land of the tobacco pipe is now Hoboken
Acquackanonk was broken up
into Paterson, Clifton, and Passaic

Where's the wild garden state I roamed?
Adios... Goodbye... annyeonghi gaseyo
I've been looking for my home
Xu lapi knewel (xhoo lah-pee knay-wuhl)
I'll see you again, New Jersey

I was inspired to write this song by fourth-grade students at the Montclair Co-operative School in Montclair, NJ. The Deedle Deedle Dees had been asked by the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University to create an original show and I told them I'd like to make one about New Jersey itself and enlist the help of a local school to help write the songs.

The fourth-grade class I worked with wrote 10 + songs on New Jersey topics of their choosing inlcuding Molly Pitcher, Les Paul, Queen Latifah and Thomas Edison and nearly all of them made it into the show they did with all four Deedle Deedle Dees at the Kasser Theater last February (2009). The one thing I felt like the show was missing, though, was a final number to tie it all together. I knew pretty early on that I wanted to use some of the old, forgotten place names that I'd come across in my own research for the project, but beyond this I didn't know what shape the "tie-together" song would take.

I was especially enamored with the concept of "Communipaw" as put forth by Washington Irving. Communipaw was simply the name for a village/area that became (roughly) modern-day Jersey City. Irving, however, wrote of Communipaw as the center of Dutch culture and the customs and ideals that created New Amsterdam. He, of course, was a myth-maker, and while his "histories" actually have a lot of fact in them, they also have plenty of fancy and exaggeration. I read somewhere that he chose Communipaw as the cradle of Dutchness because he liked the name -- as good a reason as any, I think (but don't trust me: I wrote a song called "Major Deegan" after the notorious expressway.)

"Communipaw" is thought most likely to have come, like so many place names in this area, from the Lenape languages. Conequently, my research on Jersey place names veered into a study of Lenape and culture. "Lenape" is a general term for the Indians who lived in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, etc. It's a misleading term because it's not one any Indian would have used to refer to him or herself, rather it's a classification that exists so that people (like me) can avoid referring to all the different tribes and family groups who populated the greater New York area.

After spending a lot of time on sites that promised to teach me Lenape, Lenape historical society blogs, etc., I came across the phrase that gives this song its title. Language scholars generally believe that Lenape languages had no word for "goodbye." Instead they said "I'll see you again." I knew, as soon as I read this, that I had the core of my song. I then went to the fourth-graders and asked to think of all the different ways that they knew to say goodbye. Kids taught me to say goodbye in Korean, Arabic, French, Spanish, and other languages that were spoken in their homes. I used these various farewells in order to represent and speak for the world of present-day New Jersey as it greets and says "I'll see you again" to Jerseys past.

sidenote: Some Jerseyites will tell you that New Jersey is the most ethnically diverse state in the nation. I don't know if this is true. I feel like California and New York might also be able to lay claim to this title. Will someone research this and let me know?

Further reading:
"Communipaw" by Washington Irving

The Jews of New Jersey: A Pictorial History by Patricia M. Ard and Michael Aaron

It Happened in New Jersey (It Happened In Series) by Fran Capo

By the way, my grandmother, Bessie, grew up in Paterson. I often think of her when I sing this song.

Lloyd (Ulysses S. Dee)

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Where's the new album?

It's taking longer than we thought!

The new album by the Deedle Deedle Dees, American History + Rock-n-Roll = the Deedle Deedle Dees, is done and we're finishing the sleeve this week. We have about 20 performers on the record, (including Brooklyn kids, jazz legend Roy Nathanson and his son, indy rock goddess Ali Hammer, and the Red Hook Ramblers) and we wanted to include pictures of all of them. Getting all their pictures took some time -- and figuring out how to fit all of them + their performing credits took even more time.

But we're finishing the whole thing this week and sending it to the printer! If you pre-bought an album, it will be there before Christmas. And if you'd like to buy an album, they'll be available on our CDBaby page and at our shows soon.

Speaking of shows...

The Deedle Deedle Dees
CD release concert + video shoot
Saturday, Dec. 12th
10:30 am
The Moxie Spot
Brooklyn Heights

Saturday, October 24, 2009

John Henry, Ezra Jack Keats, and You

Just back from the Ezra Jack Keats concert at Symphony Space. So fun! The event was hosted by Abena Koomson, one of the stars of the new Broadway musical, Fela! She read a book by Mr. Keats as did Sonia Manzano (Maria from Sesame Street!) and Dominic Colon (The Electric Company). Randy Kaplan played three new songs based on Keats books and so did the Dees. Thanks for a great morning, everyone!

Some folks at the show were asking where they could find recordings of the new songs we performed. We sang songs based on the Keats books, Apt. 3, Over in the Meadow, and John Henry. We're talking to the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation about the possibility of recording these tunes so hopefully, sometime soon, you'll be able to hear full studio recordings of all the great new tunes that Keats books inspired. Wouldn't a compilation of all these songs be an amazing kids album? In addition to the Dees and Randy Kaplan, past Keats events have featured Astrograss, They Might Be Giants, and other excellent performers. Check this blog for updates.

I also wanted people to know where they could read and hear more about the John Henry story. After you read the Keats book (a unique and powerful retelling of the classic tale), you should first check out a few of the endless songs that have been written about this legend. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger's takes on what is probably the most well-known "John Henry" are both good starting places. Springsteen does this tune as well and I have to thank him for introducing so many Brooklyn kids to this old song (They request it at birthday parties now -- mainly because they've heard Springsteen's version.)

Some other songs in the JH canon not to be missed:
Mississippi John Hurt's "Spike Driver Blues" -- untouchable
Leadbelly's "Take this Hammer" -- I sing it to my daughter in the swing

Grown-ups should definitely pick up Steel Drivin' Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of An American Legend by Scott Reynolds Nelson. He hunts through the prison records and finds a man who could very well be the historical John Henry. Details in many of the stories and songs about John Henry point to him most likely being some of chain gang laborer and Nelson's explorations are a thrilling trip through the early days of building industrial America by hand.

This is how we swing... John Henry!


Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Yes, it's true: I have not posted ever since I announced the September selections for the Deedle Deedle Dees American History book club. This is because I've been very busy finishing up stuff for our new album, American History + Rock-n-Roll = The Deedle Deedle Dees. I've also discovered, on talking to some Brooklyn folks on the street, that no one (except me) has actually read September's grown-up selection, The Most Famous Man in America: A Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. A number of people have told me that they want to read it and that as soon as they get a copy, that they plan to read the heck out of it.

But that's okay. I'm going to write about the book anyway and hope some of you are inspired to get started. Before I begin my short discussion of this very fascinating book I want to talk about how I'm going to change the book club yet again in an effort to get more people involved. Here's how:

- Books will be seasonal rather than monthly. In other words, you have from now until 12:01 am January 1, 2010, to read one (or more than one) of the following books:

The Most Famous Man In America: A Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate
In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
The Thoreau You Don't Know by Robert Sullivan

I'll tell you more about the two new books in another post. For now, just pick the title you like best, look it up online and order it. All these titles are very much worth your time. Better yet, find it at your favorite local independent bookstore. If you live in Brooklyn, Book Court on Court Street is going to start stocking all our book club books. They're lovely people. Shop there.

As avid readers of this blog know, the book club also features chapter books for elementary-aged kids and picture books for the pre-readers in your family. I'll put the new kid books in another post that's specifically devoted to family reading and the specific books.

Now, back to Beecher:

Henry Ward Beecher was the pastor of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights in the years before, during, and after the Civil War. During his time there he became, arguably, the "most famous man in America" due to his passionate and theatrical sermons that drew capacity crowds every Sunday. Mark Twain, Edna Dean Proctor, Walt Whitman, and some guy named Abe Lincoln were among the many who wrote or spoke of their admiration for his oratorical skills. Beecher talked about sin and redemption just like many of his peers, but he also told a lot of personal stories, stories about real people, and extended anecdotes that were very different from what anyone else was saying in the pulpit. He had a particular talent for imitating all sorts of different types of people and would use his remarkably elastic voice and expressive face to act the part of all the characters in a story he would tell. Many descriptions of his sermons / performances depict him stomping around the stage, his long hair flying, his body constantly assuming a new posture to make a new point. In many ways, he was one of America's first nationally-known entertainers -- his appeal went far beyond his religious audience.

The first two-thirds of Debby Applegate's book on Beecher are pretty standard issue general interest biography ( I love standard issue general interest biography). The final act of the book, however, has a breathless, ripped-from-the-headlines feel -- this is the section where Beecher's various (alleged) indiscretions start to catch up with him and become part of the public dialogue. After living through the public scandals involving Bill Clinton, Michael Jackson, Eliot Spitzer, and so many others, I found Beecher's ordeals both extremely familiar and a tad redundant (Oh no, not this again!" I found myself groaning). People just love to humilate a popular, powerful figure it seems and even without the internet or 24-hour cable channels, the media (newspapers and street gossip) of late 1800s America managed to overwhelm the public with constant Beecher coverage.

What are your thoughts on this book? On Beecher? Write me.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Most Famous Book Club In Brooklyn

I changed my mind about September's book. Although I love The Great Bridge by David McCullough (and I highly recommend that you read it if you haven't) I've done a lot of Brooklyn Bridge-themed stuff recently and wanted to do something different.

The new book club selection for September is The Most Famous Man in America: A Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate. Beecher, as you'll soon find out, was indeed the most famous man in America in the years just before the Civil War and, in the opinion of many, the "only reason to go to Brooklyn" before the Brooklyn Bridge was built. Every week, one ferry after another would carry a full load of passengers across the East River to hear Beecher the preacher. Whitman was a fan. So was Lincoln.

This is a book club for the whole family so the heavy Beecher tome won't be our only selection. This month -- and every month -- there will be a picture book as well as a chapter book on our reading list so that everyone can join in our explorations.

September's picture book will be Toy Boat written by Randall de Sève and illustrated by Loren Long. In celebration of the crowds who took to the water to visit Beecher's famous church (still going strong today: all of littlest explorers will take imaginary rides on ferry boats, sail boats, motor boats, and other sea-worthy vessels via one of my daughter's favorite books.

Our chapter book (for elementary-aged kids) will be The Notorious Izzy Fink by Don Brown. The docks, boats, and alleys of 1890s New York are the setting for this rowdy tale of a half-Irish, half-Russian Jewish kid growing up on the Lower East Side

Our meetings, as I started to explain in my last post, will not be small-group discussions in private homes. They will instead happen at my regular weekly singalongs and classes for kids. Huh? Yes, it's true it will be nearly impossible to have any sort of coherent discussion of the book in these wild settings and that's exactly the way I want it. Rather than talk about the book, we will sing about it in songs from the era of Beecher, original songs about the Civil War and important people and events from his time, and lots of great songs about boats and rivers and the sea. And at the end of the month, I'll host a concert / singalong / variety show themed to our books -- the first of these will happen October 4th at the Moxie Spot in Brooklyn Heights during the annual Atlantic Antic (

Lesson plans, activity sheets, art projects, and other stuff related to each month's books will be available here.

September 2009 Schedule (more to come)
Tuesdays : Singalong at the Moxie Spot, 11am (starting September 15th)
Thursdays: Deedle!Deedle!Dee! a music & movement class for kids 6 months - 4 years at the Brooklyn Learning Center, 147 Lincoln Place, Park Slope, Brooklyn, 10 and 11am (free trial classes September 17th, 8-week session begins Sept. 24th)

Start reading!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Return of the Book Club

This fall the American history book will return in a more potent form. Last spring, as I tried to schedule a meeting for the second book, I discovered again what I've known for quite some time: parents are the most difficult people to schedule in the world. So I'm not even going to try to. Instead...

My free weekly singalongs in Brooklyn will also be book club meetings. Each month of singalongs will be themed to a book and an era. All adults who come to my singalongs with kids will be invited to read the month's book. And for the kids, there will be companion picture and chapter books.

If people want to set up a grown-ups-only meeting separate from the singalong, that's fine. For now, though, we'll just be a group of people reading and singing together. Join us if you can.

In addition, once a month I'm going to host a special weekend singalong and concert at the Moxie Spot (and possibly other locations) featuring me and some special guests singing songs related to our month of reading. The first one will be the afternoon of Sunday, October 4th, as part of the annual Atlantic Antic.

I'm still deciding on the September book, but I think it might be The Great Bridge, David McCullough's perfect book about the Brooklyn Bridge. This way, our first month can be a celebration of the bridge and Brooklyn itself. We'll also read The Thoreau You Don't Know by Robert Sullivan (see the Blogs to Bother With list to the right) sometime this fall -- this is one of the books that we didn't get to in the spring due to the aforementioned scheduling problems.

See you in September,

Thursday, March 19, 2009

FDR songs + next book club meeting

A few weeks ago, we finally had our first meeting of our new American history book club for Jonathan Alter's The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. Appropriately enough, we had it at the Old Stone House in Park Slope, one of our favorite local historical sites (see Deedle Deedle Dee-Endorsed Historical Resources to the right).

I decided to make the first meeting a public event after encountering endless difficulty in scheduling everyone who responded to my posts on local listserves. New York parents, like all parents, are super busy so scheduling something like this is going to be a challenge. But we'll keep trying, of course.

As it was open to the public, I created an event in which everyone -- readers of the book and not -- could participate. Basically it was a singalong of songs from the FDR era. I referred to the book in order to give context to certain songs, but really the songs were the meat of the meeting. Four families came, all with kids, so we turned it into sort of an FDR dance party. The kids shook shakers, banged on drums, and marched around the room; I gave some brief background lectures; it rocked. Here's our set list complete with keys if you'd like to re-create our party:

This Land is Your Land G
I Ain't Got No Home C
Tell Me Why You like Roosevelt 197 G
Red Cross Blues Blues in G
The Scottsboro Boys G Em Am D7 GGGG GD7G
Happy Days Are Here Again C
Roosevelt Blues Bb F7 Bb Cm F7 Bb
You Are My Sunshine D
I Could Write a Book C
Wildwood Flower G (capo 7) or D (capo 2)
Party Girl G

The songs that are unfamiliar are probably:

a) taken from Guido Van Rijn's incredible compilation of gospel and blues from the FDR era: Roosevelt's Blues. It's a CD and an accompanying book -- Google it and order it as soon as you can. Or visit us in Brooklyn and there's a good chance you'll hear the album playing while I cook dinner...

b) written by me -- "Party Girl" is song about Eleanor Roosevelt and her friend Lorena Hickock that will appear on the new Deedle Deedle Dees album that comes out in June. I won't say anything more about it except that I can't wait for you to hear the final recorded version.

Next book:
Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line
by Martha A. Sandweiss

Next meeting: Early April most likely

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Truth About New Jersey

We're entering the rough draft phase of our composition process in Montclair, New Jersey, where I'm going once a week to write songs about great stories from the state's history with fourth-graders.

Clara Barton, one of these great stories, is at left.

The songs will be presented in a big show in less than a month at the Alexander Kasser Theater at Montclair State University. Tentatively titled "The Truth About New Jersey," our presentation of the songs will feature all four Deedle Deedle Dees and an entire fourth-grade class. These are amazing kids -- they'll be singing, rapping, playing guitar, keyboard, violin, viola, drums, and other instruments, dancing, acting.

Everyone must come to this show. And, if you write us right away, you might have a chance to contribute to our songwriting process. Here's what we have so far (these are all working titles that I've given the songs):

Annie Shoot Your Gun (about Annie Oakley)
Molly Pitcher Was the One
Clara Barton on a Christmas Night
Queen Latifah is the Queen
Les Paul + Hip Hop
Patience Lovell Wright
Thomas Edison, more inventions than we can possibly mention
NJ Presidents (Wilson + Cleveland)
Battle of Trenton
Cornelia Hancock was a nur-urse...

Some questions for you:

Who have we missed? Obviously the show can't cover the entire history of New Jersey, but we're willing to consider innovators, revolutionaries, first-timers, and other interesting barrier-breakers who you think should have a place in our little musical celebration of the state.

How do you feel about Wilson? To be honest, it's hard for me to get past all the segregation stuff. I know that's just one aspect of a very important and complicated figure but it's all I can think about as I read about the Fourteen Points and all that other textbook Wilson stuff, searching for something to help the kids with their song. If only I had never read Howard Zinn...

Songs in progress, song possibilities:
should I continue to try to write these songs I'm trying to write?
Communipaw -- Washington Irving's mythological stronghold of Dutch culture, today Jersey City. Definitely a song to be written.
NJ Underground Railroad Instructions -- There were a few main routes through the state. I think an instructional song accompanied by a driver's ed-style filmstrip of current Jersey roadways that lie along the old escape routes is in order.

Thanks for reading my notes. Hope to see you at the show:
The Deedle Deedle Dees + fourth-graders from Montclair Co-Op
Feb. 22nd
Alexander Kasser Theater
Montclair State University
Montclair, NJ

driving: The university is at One Normal Avenue. But if you enter "1 Normal Ave" into Google Maps it will take you to the middle of a nearby reservoir (seriously, I tried it). Use Google to get to Normal Ave in Montclair then use a real map.

public transport: PATH takes you steps from the theater. Awesome.